Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Final showdown in Mosul

Iraqi government forces are the closest they have ever been to liberating the city of Mosul, but questions remain about the country’s future after the defeat of the Islamic State

Iraqi forces, supported by the Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitaries, advance near the village of Sheikh Younis, south of Mosul (photo: AFP)
Iraqi forces, supported by the Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitaries, advance near the village of Sheikh Younis, south of Mosul (photo: AFP)

Declaring a “new dawn” in the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced the beginning of an operation to regain control of the whole of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the militants on Sunday.

The capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by IS militants in summer 2014 and their seizure of nearly one third of Iraq’s territory triggered the most serious existential crisis in the country’s history.

“We announce the start of a new phase in the operation… to liberate the western side of Mosul,” Al-Abadi said in his televised speech. “With valour and courage, our forces have started the liberation of what is left of Mosul from the coercion and terrorism of Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym of the terror network.

“The city will be liberated forever,” he boasted.

Al-Abadi did not disclose details about the offensive or the forces that are participating in it, but commander of the operation Abdel-Amir Yarallah said that Iraqi army units, federal police and the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) were taking part in the offensive.

Other officers reported their forces taking back a handful of villages near Mosul.

The offensive is the most significant in the war against IS so far as it edges towards a final showdown in Mosul where it began when the jihadists took control of the city after the collapse of the Iraqi security forces.

Operations to retake the western side of Mosul promise to be even more challenging than those to retake the eastern half, which took more than four months and reportedly produced high casualties among the advancing forces.

The operations are expected to be the toughest in the campaign that started in mid-October, and it may be weeks before the Iraqi forces can oust the militants from the city centre and surrounding areas.

Military analysts have predicted that the offensive into west Mosul is expected to be daunting as the advancing forces will have to fight in densely populated neighbourhoods with narrow streets that are heavily defended by thousands of militants.

The battlefield advances have come as aid agencies have warned that the new operations may increase the suffering among the 800,000 or so civilians believed to be still in the city who are facing extremely difficult conditions including shortages of food and lack of medical care.

The United Nations has estimated that the offensive could displace up to 400,000 civilians and involve a siege of the densely populated neighbourhoods of the city unless the military opens safe routes out for civilians to flee the fighting in order to reduce the casualties and destruction to homes and infrastructure.

Capturing the city would not mean the end of the militants’ war against the Shia-led Iraqi government. They are expected to continue to wage an insurgency, carrying out suicide bombings in Baghdad and other cities.

Even as Iraq’s security forces have been fighting to drive IS militants out from Mosul, the capital Baghdad has continued to teeter on the edge of political chaos.

The city has been regularly targeted by IS terrorists who seek to sow sectarian violence by targeting Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad and other cities. Their other aim is to show both the government and their supporters that they have not been beaten.

Two days before the offensive against Mosul began, a massive car bomb ripped through a market in southern Baghdad, killing at least 52 people and wounding dozens of others.

IS claimed responsibility for the bombing, the third such attack in three days. Footage circulated on social media showed charred bodies and extensive destruction at the site where the blast went off at one of the city’s busy auto markets.

While the militants are believed to be operating sleeper cells in Baghdad, IS also seems to be still in control of pockets of the so-called “Baghdad belt,” a zone which includes Sunni-populated towns and villages surrounding the largely Shia-controlled capital.

In recent weeks, reports have surfaced of blasts and clashes at several flashpoints in these areas despite efforts by the government to build a protective security fence around the capital.

Fears of continuing turmoil after the terror group is defeated in Mosul have raised questions about whether the government has a plan or a strategic vision for post-IS rebuilding and stabilisation in Iraq.

Iraq’s war with IS has cost the country dearly, both in terms of human suffering and destruction, and it illustrates how the country’s problems compound each other. The costs of humanitarian work and reconstruction after the defeat of IS will be enormous and present a serious challenge for stabilisation.

According to a report from the Iraqi parliament’s finance committee issued last week, Iraq has spent some $36 billion on the war against IS so far, and it will need some $30 billion more for rebuilding provinces devastated by the military campaign.

Iraq is already gripped by an economic crisis caused by lower oil prices, political instability and the war against IS and exacerbated by widespread corruption and bad government.

While the failure to rebuild towns devastated by the war will fuel discontent, the reconstruction and readjustment programme that will follow the defeat of IS is expected to add additional pressure to the ailing economy.

But the main challenge will remain finding a political solution to the communal and political fragmentation that has been the main cause of the instability.

Without cohesive and realistic plans for inclusiveness and power-sharing between the country’s different communities, something Iraq badly needs, disenfranchised Sunnis, IS or another new insurgent group will likely rise again.

Meanwhile, the Shia-Shia conflict is becoming entrenched as powerful Shia groups fight each other for power and resources. Anti-government protests by thousands of supporters of influential Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr are continuing unabated.

Al-Sadr, a Shia leader, has been mobilising his followers in what appears to be a muscle-flexing exercise in the intra-Shia power struggle. Last year, he led one of the biggest protest rallies against the government and urged the crowds to continue their protests until the government had met demands to implement “fundamental reforms.”

The recent demonstrations have been staged in protest against the country’s Elections Commission, which Al-Sadr has accused of being corrupt and biased.

Rising to his calls to protest, demonstrators gathered last week near the Green Zone in Baghdad, the fortified area of the Iraqi capital which hosts foreign embassies and government buildings, to demand an overhaul of the Commission that supervises the country’s elections before a provincial vote due in September.

Al-Sadr suspects that members of the Commission are loyal to his Shia rival Nuri Al-Maliki, a former prime minister and leader of the rival Islamic Dawa Party which has a majority in parliament.  

Al-Sadr’s supporters also stormed the Green Zone last year after violent clashes with the security forces. Five people were killed in last week’s demonstrations, which protesters blamed on guards. The organisers said about two dozen demonstrators had also choked on tear gas.

Unidentified attackers later launched three Katyusha rockets at the Green Zone, resulting in no casualties. Al-Sadr and Dawa Party supporters have exchanged the blame for the rocket attacks.

Al-Sadr has threatened more mass protests nationwide in a bid to force the Elections Commission to step down, a move that could escalate the ongoing Shia political divide and fuel greater conflict in the Shia-dominated southern provinces.

The southern port city of Basra will likely be a significant flashpoint as there have already been attacks related to electoral violence there in the past month. Unidentified assailants killed a leader of an influential Shia militia in Basra on 9 February.

Bassem Al-Mousawi, leader of the Kataib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades), died of his wounds in hospital after attackers aboard a pickup truck shot at his vehicle, seriously wounding him and another companion.

As a result of such woes, a political settlement remains a distant prospect in Iraq even after the launch of the military offensive to drive IS from Mosul. What unfolds in the coming months will play a decisive part in whether the country’s multiple conflicts can be defused or whether they will flare up in Iraq and probably across the wider region.

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